Can dialogue of experts solve Africa’s decolonisation dilemma?

Senegal’s oldest university is bringing together medical doctors and traditional healers to find potential areas of agreement, its vice-chancellor explains

June 17, 2024
Source: Times Higher Education's Pan Africa Universities Summit 2024

When Ahmadou Aly Mbaye’s elderly father fell sick, he begged him not to consult the local witch doctor.

“He didn’t listen to me,” recalled Professor Mbaye, vice-chancellor of Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar - Sénégal. “He told me, ‘If you send me to a hospital, I will die.’ He saw modern medicine as dangerous,” the economist recalled, noting that “like most people from my community, my father relied on traditional healers all of his life and thought their medicine was much more effective – as well as being cheaper”.

This distrust of modern medicine and, more broadly, Western norms related to everything from education and science to law is not unusual in Senegal, said Professor Mbaye. Those seeking to settle disputes will often turn to unofficial Koranic courts in the mainly Muslim west African state, while most people will rely on knowledge derived from tribal elders on issues such as farming, fishing and the weather, he explained. Although Senegal’s school system mirrors that found in France, as many as 1 million children are taught in Arabic-speaking Muslim schools – known as daara – where reading, writing and maths often come second to memorising large chunks of sacred texts.

Established in the 1950s by the French administration prior to Senegal’s independence in 1960 – and previously attached to the universities of Paris and Bordeaux – Professor Mbaye’s university in the capital city of Dakar firmly belongs in the Western tradition of higher education. But Africa’s oldest and largest francophone university, which educates 90,000 students, has not entirely written off the traditional African learning that most of the country still values.

“We cannot just ignore these practices as they are so widespread – only about 20 per cent of people in Senegal would go to a modern doctor if they were ill. Instead, the university needs to know more about what goes on these areas,” said Professor Mbaye, who has established a “dialogue of knowledge” to bring together scholars from Western and African traditions.

“This institute encourages them to use their learning and explain what works, which, for a traditional healer, might mean the plants that they use,” said Professor Mbaye, who has asked academics in law, history, literature and the social sciences to engage with those considered experts in indigenous knowledge. “We should be respectful of all views, even if we disagree,” he said.

In his own research field of education, there are arguably lessons to be learned from the daara school system, explained Professor Mbaye, whose work found that students from this sector often did better on certain educational outcomes than those schooled in the French system.

“Students from the daara would usually perform much better on entrepreneurship and show great creativity in this area,” he explained, noting that many of Senegal’s most successful businesspeople had emerged from this system.

“People in Senegal identify with this traditional knowledge and see the modern types of knowledge as imported by foreigners and not connected to their lives,” reflected Professor Mbaye on the need to incorporate what might be described as “more African content” into scholarship while also preserving an empirical approach to exploring and testing ideas and hypotheses.

Campus resource: Decolonising the curriculum – how do I get started?

This issue of how African universities “decolonise” their curricula was recently to the fore at Times Higher Education’s Pan-Africa Universities Summit in Pretoria, where a large number of delegates spoke in favour of such moves. “Scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge should not be siloed – you have to integrate these things into the curricula,” said Yayra Dzakadzie, deputy director general at the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission, adding that many traditional African practices “cannot be explained but they work”. “In Ghana, we never had weather forecasters, but our parents told us how to work out when it might rain, and it works,” he said.

Some African scholars did worry that this trend could see superstition and unverified hokum taught to undergraduates at a time when they should be seeking to hone their critical faculties. “While I understand the challenge [of decolonising science courses]…I come at it from the perspective of a theoretical physicist,” said Ahmed Bawa, former vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology.

For many delegates, decolonising curricula would also mean far greater use of local African languages, particularly when teaching students who, they claimed, were currently held back by writing in what could be their second or third language.

For his part, Professor Mbaye said African universities “should mainstream local languages” but was wary about where this might lead. “Many countries have started on this process, and we need to decolonise, but also be open to the world. If I was to write a research paper in my native language of Wolof, which is spoken by most people in Senegal, I’m not going to find scholars to review it except from those currently in Senegal.”

He added: “African universities need to be open to Africa but also open to the world.”


Print headline: How best to decolonise HE?

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